RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Who owns the recordings a musician makes? Most of the time, especially in pop music, it's the record labels, and that can create painful situations for artists who have worked hard to create that music that ultimately someone else owns. The megastar Taylor Swift is just the latest musician to come forward with bitter complaints about that very situation, and she's gotten into a very public feud about it that swept up the likes of Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato and Kanye West. We're joined by NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas in New York to untangle this story.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU NEED TO CALM DOWN")
TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) You need to calm down. You're being too loud. And I'm just like, oh-oh.
MARTIN: OK, Anastasia, that's Taylor Swift and her latest single, "You Need To Calm Down," but she is anything but calm right now. What's going on?
ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel. Well, you've got to go back a ways. Taylor Swift signed her first record deal when she was just 15 to what was then a brand-new Nashville outfit called Big Machine. And she became the label's big, big star. She made six multiplatinum albums for them. And Big Machine owns all of those albums, including the master recordings.
MARTIN: Masters are important, right? These are the original recordings.
TSIOULCAS: Exactly. They're vital musically, historically and not least financially. And most of the time, pop labels own those. As Prince famously said back in the '90s when he was fighting about masters, he said, if you don't own your masters, your master owns you. So this past Sunday, news came that the founder of Big Machine, who's a guy named Scott Borchetta, sold his label for $300 million to another very powerful guy in the entertainment industry, a manager named Scooter Braun. And now, Braun represents a whole flock of A-listers, including Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and Kanye West.
MARTIN: And this is where the whole thing exploded, right?
TSIOULCAS: Exactly. Taylor Swift turned to her Tumblr blog on Sunday, and she wrote that she didn't know that Big Machine was being sold. She'd been trying to buy back her masters for years. And that in the past, Borchetta had suggested terms that were just so onerous that she had to walk away. And she also laid into Scooter Braun, and she claimed that he's subjected her to what she calls, quote, "incessant, manipulative bullying."
MARTIN: And I mean, she said that her work had been snatched up by two men who had nothing to do with her creative process.
TSIOULCAS: That's exactly right, Rachel. And Borchetta fired back on his social media, saying that if Taylor had re-upped her deal with Big Machine, she could have earned her old masters back. But in the meantime, in that blog post of hers, Swift laid into a couple of Scooter Braun's clients by name. She name-checked both Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, whom she has very publicly feuded with before.
MARTIN: Right. This is at the VMAs - right? - when he got onstage and interrupted her acceptance speech.
TSIOULCAS: Exactly. I'm-a (ph) let you finish - 10 years ago, classic moment.
TSIOULCAS: And then Justin Bieber, who has worked with Scooter Braun since he was 12, jumped into the fray to defend him; so did another of Scooter Braun's clients, Demi Lovato. And this whole issue of who owns masters, which has been an issue that has plagued artists in the industry since literally the dawn of the recorded era, is now playing out like a middle school throwdown among some very, very rich people.
MARTIN: So what's Taylor Swift doing now?
TSIOULCAS: Well, last November she signed a new deal with the world's largest record company, Universal Music Group, and as part of that agreement, she'll own her masters.
MARTIN: Which is a big deal.
TSIOULCAS: Absolutely. The irony, Rachel, is that Universal is under intense scrutiny right now because a New York Times investigation last month revealed that Universal allegedly allowed hundreds of thousands of master recordings and other treasures to burn in a catastrophic fire back in 2008.
MARTIN: Whoa. OK, Anastasia, thanks. We appreciate it.
TSIOULCAS: Pleasure to be with you, Rachel. Thanks.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU NEED TO CALM DOWN")
SWIFT: (Singing) You just need to...
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